Fire in the Haze

Issue #203

The week the Haze Precinct burned, Neiu had been my lover for three years, and even she had never seen me during the day. My schedule was not so remarkable as it might have been in the city, since Ru is a nocturnal goddess and Seeresses on the whole do their work between sunset and sunrise. Even so, the singular strictness of my habits had drawn their share of gossip during the decade I had studied and taught at the Starlight Temple.

Neiu had learned not to trouble herself with knocking before sunset, but on the fifth of Silver that year, I refused to answer the door a full hour into twilight, and her patience snapped.

“You have someone in there, don’t you,” she said; I could hear her slap her palms against the antique elm wood that separated us. “Open this door or I will disintegrate it.”

Neiu tremendously overestimated her skill, but nothing good could come of an attempt to tamper with the architecture. As Starlight Temple was devoted to a goddess of chaos, it had not been built to any particular plan, and more than once in its history minor attempts at renovation had caused entire wings to collapse.

“I’ll be there directly,” I said. “I’m having trouble with a spell.”

This was not precisely a lie. I stood in front of my full-length glass drenched in terror-sweat at the idea that the spell that had been protecting me for ten years had suddenly and without warning expired.

“Let me in,” Neiu said. “Let me help.”

I hardly heard her. My transformation had seemed late the evening before, but I had passed off the delay as a small error in the predicted time of sunset. Now there was no question that the spell was failing. There wasn’t so much as a sliver of sun above the horizon, and yet I remained male. The presence of a man at a Temple of Ru was not a mere inconvenience; it was a capital crime.

Tuo, why did you not warn me? After ten years the name was a war-wound, a faded ache that came and went with the weather.

The door opened. I snatched up my robe and held it against me, but it was too late. Neiu stared between my legs as though she could see through the heavy black silk.

“What was that?” she said.

“Surely you’ve seen one before.”

“Is this the spell you’re working on?” she said, aghast. “By the Void; you’re sweating like a stevedore.”

She closed the door behind her and came to me, grabbing my forearms and lifting them, robe and all. I shuddered as gesture triggered a vivid sense-memory: my standing at the wind-chilled edge of a canal, staring into the pale round eyes of a Child of Ru.

“That’s miraculous,” Neiu breathed. I looked down at the razor-straight part in her black hair. She was a full head shorter than I was; Tuo had changed as little as possible about me when he had shaped my female version. “How did you do it?” she said, prodding the organ in question. “Your whole frame is different; you smell different. En, it’s brilliant. And horrible. Make it stop.”

If only I could. I clung to the hope that if I drew out the conversation enough the situation might resolve itself. “I thought—you could try me this way,” I said.

Neiu looked at me as though she’d found a worm in a peach. “Oh, Void no. No, no, no. No.”

“What if I could give you a child?”

That gave her pause; talent was known to run in families. Only on the female side, said the Seeresses, and any boy who claimed otherwise was summarily executed. But I could read Neiu’s too-expressive face without need of telepathy: what if I had discovered a way to cut the seeders out of the process altogether?

I hadn’t, of course. The magic at work here was Tuo’s, not mine, and it worked the wrong way round.   I could feel it now, in fact, belatedly catapulting me into that nauseous moment of transitional nothingness that should have happened precisely at sunset.

Before Neiu could answer my intriguing speculation, I was a woman again, and she laughed in relief. She leaned in to brush my hair aside and kiss the smooth pulse of my throat, then tilted back her head to catch my earlobe between her teeth.

“Don’t ever do that again.”

My lover was drowsy afterward, and I carefully insinuated my way back up the mattress to look into her face. Despite my earlier offer, Neiu was likely near the end of her childbearing years; the skimmed-milk skin beneath her eyes was touched with shadow. Her mercurial temperament was what had drawn me to her, but it had etched deeper lines around her mouth than a properly impassive woman should have. I kissed one of them, and she opened her eyes: the exact shade of ripe blueberries.

“I love you,” I said, still tasting the salt of her on my tongue.

She turned her head, petulant. “So you always say.”

Now was not the time for a reprise of this conversation. I rolled over and out of the bed, then squatted to open the trunk at the foot of it that held all the things I rarely used. I had to empty out half of the trunk’s contents before I located an old city dress, now ten years out of fashion. I removed it, gave it a shake, and draped it against me, watching the ash-gray cotton cling to subtle curves I would soon eliminate with undergarments.

Neiu pushed up onto her elbow. “You’re not thinking of leaving the temple?” she said, shocked, then just as abruptly delighted. “We should spend awhile at the lake; it’s the autumn festival now. Have you ever been? On one boat, these boys put on a puppet show that you would swear was one of the Whore’s illusions. They use wires as fine as silk—you’re going alone, aren’t you.” The last words were laced with frost.

“I have an errand I need to run. A dull errand.”

“I want to go,” she insisted. “I want to see goblins.”

The cheap cotton slipped through my fingers to the floor; I stooped to pick it up.

“En, you’re trembling.”

“I don’t like goblins.”

Neiu drew in a quick breath at my blasphemy. “Goblin” was the colloquial term for the children of Ru: quasi-immortal creatures, holy avatars of wit and chaos who only emerged from the water at night. They were the goddess’s children alone, not adulterated as humans were by the meddling of the Betrayer and the Whore.

One of those shapechanging fiends had been my first lover. Tuo had infiltrated and rearranged me in every imaginable way, and I still wasn’t entirely certain I’d survived it.

But I had to find him, because I had sold myself to him for a spell that now appeared to be fading.

“I’m going alone,” I told her, and she recognized my tone as final.

It took an hour to descend the mountain to the water taxi station at its base, another half hour for the boy to paddle me west across the dazzling lake. Barges and boats, some as many as four stories high, were decked with paper lanterns in autumn hues; the air was haphazardly pierced by the smoky hiss and profound, heart-stuttering crack of white Wou sky-paints. I wrapped my arms around myself and stared at the approaching Jiun-Shi city wall.

As we passed beneath Starlight Gate, I looked up at the thousand-year-old mosaic that the crushing city taxes went in small part to maintain. It was said contemptuously of the citizens of Jiun-Shi that they traded bread for paint, but outsiders’ sneers melted like candle wax the moment they penetrated the city’s forbidding exterior and saw the beauty within.

On one side of the Starlight arch, the mosaic depicted the demigoddess of magic Alexira with upraised arms; opposite her stood Ru herself against an onyx backdrop of her own windblown hair, a single amethyst tear on her cheek. Both were depicted as women of the Empire with pearl-white skin, but I had visited Kyreth, and Alexira’s living descendents were without exception brown as walnuts.

The great clock tower in the Mayor’s Precinct began its melancholy toll. I counted out eleven bells as I alighted just inside the gate and joined the queue for another ride into the city. In three hours all the shops would close, the merchants would pack up their stalls, and the streets would be quiet for the remaining hours of the goblin watch. This was done out of concern for the goblins, a few of whom in ancient times had become so distracted by the pleasures of the city that they had forgotten to return to the water and had perished at sunrise, leaving only wrinkled, empty husks.

“To the Silver Fish teahouse,” I told the boy when my turn had come, and he helped me into the slender boat without a word, careful to touch only my cotton-clad forearm.

Anxiety writhed in my gut as the boat made its swift way west along the Lunar Canal, the main artery of the city. I wondered if anyone I had worked with at the Silver Fish would still be there. Likely not after ten years; third-shift turnover was high.

“Look,” said the taxi-boy proudly, pointing with the flat of his hand. “A goblin.”

Every hair on my body lifted, and I followed the boy’s gesture with my eyes.

The fog-gray creature was in its native form and sat perched on the eaves of a tailor’s shop, its knees bent to where its ears would have been if it had had them. Like all goblins, its features were so smooth and monochromatic that they were difficult to make out, tricking the eye into seeing only two dimensions. Its large pale eyes were fixed on the street below. Something about its air of wariness struck me as callow.

Tuo’s natural form had been as dark as the ink he used for his poems. A memory waylaid me: the chill wet tease of his writing brush as he traced elegant couplets on my thigh. I looked away from the roof, skin flushing hot.

The sameness of the Silver Fish after all the intervening years gave me a sense of vertigo. Pale blue papered walls, neat rows of cloth-draped tables, and the smell—a clean, almost medicinal mingling of tea, linseed oil, and fresh-cut lilies. I scanned the interior, pulse racing, but if Tuo was there he was not using the same human form he’d worn in my day. On a closer look at the teahouse the mist of nostalgia dispersed, and I began to suspect that my former employer’s golden age had come and gone. The place should have had twice as many customers at this hour, and I spotted faint stains on one of the tablecloths.

The current shift manager was a handsome, thin-lipped young woman I didn’t recognize, a bit older than I had been when I’d held her position. She looked up at me blandly as I approached her station, not recognizing me as a Seeress without my robe.

“How can I help you?” she said.

“I am—looking for Tuo.”

She gave me a knowing smile. “Of course,” she said. “Would you like a table by the window?”

The air grew thick in my lungs. “Do you expect him soon?”

The manager looked at me for a moment, her expression fading into something fashionably opaque. “You are visiting Jiun-Shi from elsewhere?”

“Yes,” I approximated.

She nodded, obviously filing me away into a different category. “Tuo doesn’t really come here,” she said gently, as to a child. “At least he hasn’t in the time I’ve worked here. Interesting story, though.”

“Tell it to me,” I said.

She glanced behind me, but there was no one else waiting. She gave a fluid shrug and leaned on her elbows. “They say he came here for centuries. He always took the form of a beautiful boy poet—quite a tempter of women, he was, and a destroyer of them, too. Until he met the Seeress Jal En, who was a hostess here at the time.”

No, I was a manager, like you, I did not say.

“We know they had a love affair; the owner says she saw them together on several occasions. But eventually En left her position here to join the Temple—”

I was fired, I did not say. That crone fired me. Why is she of all people still alive?

“—and after that Tuo was never seen again. Some say En murdered him. Some say he murdered her and took her shape, and that Seeress Jal En is not a Seeress at all but Tuo in disguise. Some say he still comes here, only in a different form and in secret. If you wait a moment, I can give you the very table they say he used to sit at. Apparently he was peculiarly regular, for a goblin.”

“That’s all right,” I said, trying not to remember his tangled hair across that table, the gaunt lines of his face, the way his eyes took in every detail of me as though preparing for an examination. A perfect mimicry of human eyes, the same deep violet-blue as Neiu’s but a shade darker. “I have—another appointment.”

There is a local joke that does not translate well. It asks, what is the difference between gossip and fire? The answer is never spoken aloud; the joke is familiar enough to have become a rhetorical question.

It is difficult to understand the joke if you do not live in Jiun Shi, a city crowded with buildings of wood and thatch. It is impossible for an outsider to understand the superstitious, terrified care with which everyday cooking fire is treated—flames are seen as the minions of an angry god, yearning to escape and devour.

If by some rare, unthinkable negligence—almost without exception perpetrated by tourists— a fire should escape its enclosures on a dry day, all activity is suspended as a mass exodus ensues via the waterways. The winds are not strong inside the city walls, and so the cross-hatching of canals creates an effective perimeter to what would otherwise be a city-wide holocaust. Once the fire-god has been sated, often many days later, the citizens of Jiun Shi return to the devastated precinct to search weeping through the ashes for the remains of what they left behind.

What is the difference between gossip and fire? Fire stops at the canal.

I returned to the Starlight Gate and made my way to the front of the queue. I asked a question of every taxi-boy who arrived at the station, waving a passenger ahead of me each time I was told no. At last I found the right boy—an old man, to be more accurate—and he gave me a long sober look before answering.

“Yes, I know the Mirror,” he said. “I know where it is. But it will cost you seven crescents. And that is if I leave you there.”

“Take me,” I said, and climbed into his boat. He shook his head slowly and then, after a moment’s prayerlike pause, began to row me toward the Children’s Causeway.

The shallow, man-made section of the lake north of the causeway was sparsely populated, and always had been, as it was consecrated to the Children of Ru. As my oarsman ducked to let us drift under the bridge at the center of the causeway, the chill became too much for me, and I trembled until my muscles ached with it.

“It’s somewhere around here,” said the old man after a third of an hour. Every so often the sky-paints showed me a livid flicker of his face, time-etched and tired. “Or at least it was. But without him to tell me, I don’t know where you’d board.”

“Wait a moment,” I said. The Mistress of Shrouds had not named me the temple’s youngest Secondary for nothing. I rolled my eyes up toward the stars and swiped my fingertips across their whites, drawing tears. Catching them in my hand, I flung them with a flick of my wrist in the direction the old man had gestured, murmuring Kyrethian focus words under my breath. In mid-air the tears burned out of existence in a feeble flare of violet light.

“Seeress,” the old man breathed, and went to his knees in the boat.

Tuo’s work was fiendishly subtle, and even with the aid of my Sight it took a moment’s headache-inducing concentration to counter his Shroud, to approximate a vague unstable outline of the object from which my mind was being deflected.

I directed the old man to row closer, and eventually he bumped into the vessel. This broke the spell completely, and my heart with it.

The Mirror loomed above us, rocking subtly on the lake, two decaying stories of intricately embellished wood. Its blue paint was weather-abused, its hull worm-eaten; it showed every sign of having been forgotten. The ramp that had once been anchored to the lake bottom was missing; I had the old man row me to a place where I could get a good enough handhold to climb onto the lower deck.

“Wait here for me,” I said. “There’s another seven crescents in it for you.”

I walked a quarter of the way round the deck until I found the main entrance doors. I tried one and found it locked, but the other yielded to my touch with a dolorous groan. The interior was slightly better preserved than the outside; the murals Tuo had painted in the main lounge were lightly mildewed in places but not faded. The smell was hard to endure, though: a choking miasma of damp neglect. I scanned every corner for some sign of his presence but found nothing.

And yet everywhere I looked, my periphery supplied ghosts of him: lounging indolently on a couch, reaching up to add a final stroke to a poem, bowing over my hand. And there, of course, pausing at the foot of the narrow stairs to the grand bedchamber. Looking over his shoulder, a half smile adorning the human face he wore even when we were alone.

I had never been far behind.

Careful to soften my footfalls, I climbed the narrow stairs. They were not as thick with dust as I felt they ought to be. With each step my legs felt heavier, my hands colder. I reached the summit of the staircase and opened the door.

The room was empty, the windows open. Mildewed silk bed curtains writhed and sighed in the draft. And at last I found proof that he had not ceased to exist the moment I bid him farewell.

Sometime in the last decade, he had covered the walls of the bedchamber with fragmented images and dark erratic clouds of poetry. The longest wall represented the interior of the Silver Fish in muted colors. The remaining three walls were more abstract, but the eyes that stared back at me from atop an impenetrable explosion of text by the headboard were decidedly mine, black and heavy-browed with down-tilted corners that gave them a look of perpetual melancholy.

The poetry was a confusing mess, sometimes overwritten in new colors: epiphanic prophecies of insurrection layered coyly over heart-ripping threnodies to a peerless intimacy. Everything was honey and fire and nails raking flesh, and beneath it all, yawning in the negative space, the depthless ache of abandonment.

I approached the bed at the room’s center and fell onto it, bunching the musty sheets between my fingers and giving in to a wracking paroxysm of sobs. The subtle undercurrent of despair that had haunted me every day since I had left him became a sharp, savage need for nonexistence.

Throw stones, he had said. That had been the point of it all. Once I had made my mark at the Temple I was to reveal myself, sacrifice myself on the altar of change. Instead, I had grown comfortable. I had loved. I had played the Betrayer’s part.

We no longer name the god of law and light. He abandoned his partner Ru, snuffed his honor in the honeyed quicksand of the Whore’s lust, and through their sin the world was born. We were forbidden to even speak our creators’ names, yet we could never be free of them. Again and again we acted out small plays of their betrayal, again and again the weakness of the human body ripped us away from the dignity of divine reason.

I, a Seeress, was meant to be an example for weaker women. But this was proof that I was no kind of woman at all. Worse was the realization that wrapped around my heart like a thorned vine: his spell had been crafted from the very beginning to force my hand. Tuo had predicted my betrayal before I had even made the promise.

At the Temple an hour before sunrise I felt Tuo’s spell fade; the bindings beneath my robe loosened and my center of gravity shifted subtly. I was so accustomed to the transition that my stride did not even falter on the way back to my chamber. There in the dim light of my sputtering bedside lamp I stripped naked, then pulled on a rough sleeping gown, slid my feet into slippers. Drying my palms on the hemp fabric of the gown, I left my room and made my way down the hall to the High Seeress’s suite.

High Seeress Tash Neru needed no magic to make her female, but she was as tall as I, and broader through the shoulders. Her silver hair had only a few streaks of black left in its under-layers, and her mouth was creased with radial wrinkles from a bad habit of lip-pursing. Between her brows, set in moonsilver, flesh, and bone, gleamed the magnificent indigo tearstone that served as the badge of her rank. Her expression when she answered my knock was fast on its way toward irritation.

“Jal,” she said in her brittle voice, addressing me by my family name out of respect for my position as Secondary. It was not, of course, my true family name. “What brings you to me at this hour?”

I found that I was rooted to the spot and could not answer her question. High Seeress Tash had not always been kind to me, but she had been fair, and the challenge of pleasing her had been a large factor in my rapid rise through the Temple ranks.

“I—must disclose something,” I faltered.

She blew an annoyed burst of air between her withered lips, then stepped back into her chamber with a curt beckoning gesture.

“I had best do this outside in the hall,” I said, and then pulled my gown off over my head.

“Have you lost your —” She stopped abruptly as I tossed the garment aside onto the stone floor. Her every muscle went rigid with shock. For a moment we two stood in silence, she still in her robes of office, I naked as a babe. I saw something like pain in her eyes before she closed them, inhaling through pinched nostrils.

“I am sorry,” I said, “for my dishonesty.”

At that her eyes flew open, now as flat as onyx tesserae. “You are sorry,” she repeated. “You are sorry, Jal En. Which of course is not your name.”

“It has been for seventeen years.”

“And before?”

“As far as my mother knows, her son drowned at eighteen. I would prefer she continue to think so.”

“Put your damned gown back on, boy. This is a Temple of Ru, not a hob-house.”

I did as she asked, feeling a shiver of hope at the brusqueness of her tone. It was the manner she used with dull initiates and recalcitrant cats, not criminals bound for the gallows. The familiarity of it made my eyes burn.

“My name may be a lie,” I said, “but my skills are not.” I struggled for composure, but the tears slipped past my lashes, hot on my cheeks. “Everyone at the Temple has seen them, including you, High Seeress.”

That look of pain flickered over her face again, and she stepped forward. She laid a soft hand on my cheek. “You really are a boy, aren’t you,” she said in a tender tone I had never heard her use. “And I an old fool for not having guessed. Am I the last to know?”

“The first,” I said. And instantly knew it for a mistake.

Her fingertips, wet with tears, touched my forehead, and she murmured two Kyrethian words that blew out my consciousness like a candle.

The Haze Precinct is bordered on the north and west by the city wall, and by canals on the south and east. The jail known as Har Pesh cowers against the northwest corner as though it expects a beating. I use the word “jail” only because there is no more accurate translation. Though this is fiendishly difficult for outsiders to understand, the Empire of Ru has no organized justice system. Har Pesh is simply a holding facility where interrogations are conducted: by private citizens, businesses, or the Temple as often as by the government. Prisoners rarely stay for more than a day or two; by that point they either satisfy their interrogators and are released, or damn themselves and are led to the public gallows next door.

It was in this miserable place that High Seeress Tash released me from the spell she had cast upon me. I returned to consciousness to find myself lying at the bottom of an oubliette, smelling stale urine and staring up through a rectangular grating at two faces peering down from about thrice my height. It was difficult to tell who they were, as the light was scant and largely behind them. I was naked but for the chain harness that had been used to lower me; the aches in my body suggested I had not been lowered particularly gently.

“Good evening,” came Tash’s voice.

“I shall have to take your word for it.”

“I need to know how you’ve managed this deception, and how far the secret has spread. Lam Neiu claims not to have known, which is odd—are not the two of you lovers?”

“She thought I was a woman,” I said firmly. “I was under a spell that turned me female during the night, and I never let her see me during the day.”

“What I don’t understand is how you could have cast an illusion powerful enough to withstand—that level of scrutiny.”

“It was not an illusion. It was a shape change.”

I did not have to see her face to understand her silence. In all of recorded history, only three High Seeresses had ever acquired enough power to cast such a spell, and never for more than an hour. Even young goblins could not change their shape for the entirety of a night, which was why so many humans had mistaken Tuo for one of their own during his nights writing poetry at the Silver Fish.

“High Seeress,” I said. “Let me go. Whatever this brings, let it be. Are change and chaos not sacred?”

“Faith must be balanced with practicality. If you walk about as a man, casting spells, people will go mad. Someone will murder you.”

“But by then the truth will be known, the change set in motion.”

“I have no interest in truth, cast into the dirt for boys and beggars to feed on. Knowledge must be protected by those who know how best to use it.”

“You said you spoke with Neiu.” As the words left me, a cold stone settled into the pit of my stomach. “You interrogated her? Is she alive?”

“She is standing right here.” She gestured to the figure next to her.

“Neiu! Are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” came her voice, flat and stiff. “But I don’t believe any of this. You’re a woman, I know you are. You’re sowing chaos, and I can appreciate that. But she’ll kill you, En. Tell her. Let her in on whatever it is you’re doing.”

“I was born male, Neiu. I’m sorry. I ran away from the saltworks when I was eighteen.”

After a moment’s silence, she spoke again, softly. “High Seeress, can I speak with En alone?”

“As you wish. Find out what you can.”

I heard footsteps above me, and the closing of a door. Neiu fell to her knees and wrapped her hands around the bars of the grate. “I don’t care if you were born male,” she hissed. “You’re a woman now, and I love you. Don’t throw your life away. If you can change so completely, again and again, who is to say who you really are?”

I am, I thought, but did not say.

“Tell her you were born a woman, and you lied to test her faith. She would respect that.”

These were the words she spoke, but the words I heard were, I so badly want you to be a woman that I will lie to myself, and to everyone else. Throw away half of yourself, and I will stand by you.

“I made a promise,” I said, lowering my eyes to the darkness inside the pit. “I promised I would throw a stone into the lake.”

“You’re throwing your stone at the gallows! No one will even know why!”

“I made a promise,” I repeated stubbornly.

“To whom?” she asked me. “Who is worth dying for? And where is she now, while I plead for your life?”

I would not say his name, not here in this pit. “I do this for the glory of our Goddess.”

“You ungrateful hob!” she spat, clambering to her feet. “Rot, then! See if I mourn for you! I’ll laugh while you swing from the rope!” She turned and dashed out of view; I heard her footfalls and the slam of a heavy door. And then I was alone with my thoughts in the fetid darkness.

“—not possible,” were the next words I heard as the door opened above me. The voice was female, middle-aged, unfamiliar. “The walls can’t be climbed.”

“Tell us how it was done.” This voice was more familiar: High Seeress Tash, teeth gritted with anger. “Tell us or by the Goddess, I will drop you down the hole without the chain.”

A silence, and then the sharp sound of a hand striking flesh. More silence.

“Do it,” said Tash. A pair of hands began to lift the grate aside; there was a great sound of scuffling and struggling but no words.

“Who’s there?” I called. “Neiu?”

The silence that descended from above was suffocating. Then two words were spoken quietly by a third voice, soft but perhaps male: “Jal En.”

“Yes?” I said. “What is happening?”

Tash and the second woman—Har Pesh security staff of some kind—began to talk at once in breathless, rapid tones. Then Tash called down to me, her voice teetering hysterically. “How are you doing this?”

“Doing what?” I called up.

As if in answer, the grate was pulled aside, and a naked man with long unbound hair plummeted down nearly in free-fall, the chain attached to his harness given very little check by the winch above. When he landed face-first and the chain went slack, the hook slipped free, and the chain was wound up again. I moved to him in concern, turning him over and stroking the hair away from his face.

My own face looked back at me, mouth swelling and smeared with blood. Gooseflesh rose on my arms, and I scrambled backward like a crab until I hit the wall. No human alive looked so much like me.

“Tuo?” I whispered.

“No,” the man said. He rolled to his side, leaning on his elbow, and spat blood. “I am Jal En.” Something was wrong with those eyes, something subtle. I had never noticed anything amiss in Tuo’s human forms; I was now less certain that this was he.

“What are you doing here?” I asked the creature.

“Having a bit of fun,” it whispered, and gave me a terrifying, red-toothed smile.

I looked up and found Tash and the other woman gazing down. Tash knelt with the grate in her hands but did not replace it.

“What is happening?” she called down. “Explain this!”

The goblin next to me sat bolt upright, eyes glittering feverishly. “A goblin!” it cried. “There is a goblin down here! It has taken my shape!”

Suppressing a startled laugh, I started to protest but then realized that would be idiotic. Instead, I sat in the same pose as the goblin and said, “There is a goblin down here! It has taken my shape!”

Then both of us began to laugh.

Tash backed away from the grate. “Well,” she said to the other woman. “This is unusual to say the least. But Children of Ru cannot hold a human shape for very long. We will wait. Either the Child will revert to form or it will give up the game near sunrise.”

“I struck a goblin...” the other woman said in a quavering voice.

“Perhaps not,” said Tash. “It may be that the first Jal En was the Child, trying to destroy Jal’s reputation. There are stories that Jal angered a powerful Child years ago. This may all be some elaborate revenge.”

“But we know one of them is a goblin! Isn’t it blasphemy to keep it here?”

“Under the circumstances, temporarily detaining one mischievous Child of Ru will certainly be understood.”

The trouble was, the Children had only just begun their game. Soon another Jal En was found at the Silver Fish, then a fourth at the Temple. Then three more Jal Ens marched arm-in-arm to Har Pesh, singing, and turned themselves in. By midnight the seven of us were huddled together at the bottom of the oubliette, all appearing equally bewildered.

With each passing hour the voices above my oubliette grew sharper, more tremulous, and once as the door opened I thought I heard the shouts of a crowd outside. Each time the jailor and Tash left, I tried to interrogate the goblins, but none of them would speak to me. Each time the pair returned, I tried to ask what was happening outside, but I was drowned out by the same questions from six other prisoners, and Tash and the jailor ignored all of us.

Not long after the Mayor’s clock tolled a quarter to one, the two burst in arguing feverishly as they lowered an eighth Jal En down the oubliette.

“Nearly a hundred taxi boys are at the Starlight Gate,” Tash was saying, “and they’re threatening to storm the Temple if we don’t free the Children. Word is starting to reach the stations here.”

Jal En number eight was lowered gently, as numbers three through seven had been, and he looked around in well-feigned fear and confusion as the chain with the hook was retracted.

“Let’s just free them all,” said the jailor.

“One of them is guilty of a capital crime. The rest are perfectly capable of escaping on their own. I’ll be back in the morning.”

“You can’t leave me here alone!” said the jailor. “I don’t know the first thing about goblins!”

“As I said, the taxi boys’ revolt is spreading. If I wait much longer to cross the Lunar Canal, I’m afraid I’ll have to swim. Just stay inside the building. Don’t show your face outside; it’s better if the zealots don’t connect you with this.”

“I’m letting them go. I’m letting them all go!”

“Stop it. Listen to me. The Children of Ru can climb walls, walk on ceilings. They are down there because they choose to be. Relax, wait it out, and execute whichever one is left in the morning.”

The grate shuddered back into place, and they left us. Jal En number eight found an unoccupied portion of the floor to cower in. “Please,” he said. “Tell me what’s going on.”

“Why do you keep up the pretense when no one is here?” said the second, the one with the bloody mouth. For a moment I thought they were on the verge of breaking ranks, but then I realized the injured one was playing my part.

“It’s a good question, actually,” said a third, taking up the game. “Why would all of you do this for me? What is the point?”

I looked between the eight of them. “Is one of you Tuo?”

That silenced them. They all turned to look at me. Tense, still, waiting. For what?

“Tuo,” I said. “Is he here?”

“Do you think he would try to save you?” said the one with the bloody mouth, its tone contemptuous. “Do you think one brief human life matters so much?”

“Mine could have,” I said. “But now they plan to execute me before anyone knows what happened. Years of planning, pinched before it could bloom. Tuo would not want that.”

The one who had just questioned me let out a shuddering exhale, slumping as though exhausted. Its form melted like warm wax, and suddenly an unfamiliar slate-gray goblin sat in the man’s place.

I’m sorry, it said in my mind. Goblins did not have proper speech apparatus, but could touch another’s thoughts as casually as a human might touch a shoulder. The pain made it harder. I can hold no longer.

“It’s all right,” I said. “You should go. I never meant for you to help me, much less get hurt.”

I did it for him, not for you. In my mind, the creature’s contempt was even more palpable, but something in me sang like a skylark.

“For Tuo?” I cried. “Where is he?”

But the goblin wanted no more of me. It moved up the wall like water flowing in reverse, and apparently decided that lifting the heavy grate was more difficult than reshaping its body to ooze between the bars.

I looked at the remaining copies of me, all imperfect in different ways. “You should all go,” I said. “You heard the High Seeress. She’s going to hold out until morning.”

“But I wonder,” one of them mused, “what state the city will be in by then?”

By the time the clock tolled three, four more of my cellmates had lost their shapes and fled. One was nearly as dark as Tuo, dark enough to make my heart skip, but its form was stockier, its tail shorter. None of them so much as glanced back at me as they climbed toward the light.

Three remained; they must have all been goblins of considerable age and experience to have held a form for more than four hours. I refused to dismiss the possibility that one of them might be Tuo, and I looked between them, trying to find some sign. But they had all copied me equally inexpertly. I was studying each of them once again when the door above opened loudly, and the jailor’s footsteps thudded toward the grate.

“Children of Ru!” she panted. “You must go now! They have set the precinct afire!”

“Are you going to release me, too?” one of them called up.

“No,” said the jailor, assuming it was me. “The building is stone; you’ll be safe. I’ll lower you down some food and water quickly. But the goblins need to get back to the water before the fire surrounds us.”

“You’re going to leave me here?” another of them said in a whining, panicked tone that I hoped sounded nothing like me.

“You’re to be executed,” the jailor said. “I can’t let you go; I’m sorry.”

The three goblins looked at one another, and some wordless communication must have passed between them, because two of them immediately shifted their forms and began to climb the walls. The third remained seated, leaning back against the wall, watching me. I stared back at him, looked into my own eyes from across the cell.

“Aren’t you going to go?” we said at the same time, in the exact same tone.

I stared at him, and he stared at me.

We both whispered, “Tuo.”

“Come on!” the jailor called down. “We don’t have much time!”

I’m staying, said Tuo’s voice in my mind. Say it.

“I’m staying,” he and I said at once.

“Begging your pardon, Child of Ru,” said the jailor, “but you will die if you stay down there.”

“Please go,” I begged Tuo, even as he begged me the same. “I’ll be safe down here. Go!”

“Stop it!” said the jailor, clearly beginning to panic. “Child of Ru, if I let you die, the mob will draw and quarter me! You have to come out. Please! The precinct is burning!” She began to weep, sinking to her knees by the grate. “Ah, Ru, what do I do? What do I do?”

Tell her to lower the chain.

“Lower the chain,” we said. “It seems we must leave together or not at all.”

“There’s no time for this,” sobbed the jailor, rising to her feet. “I’m sorry; Ru forgive me.” With that, she fled.

Bewildered and weeping myself now, I moved to Tuo to give him my hands and help him to his feet. He stood, exactly my height; my own eyes stared into mine. He did not let go of my hands, and when he saw my tears, his own eyes filled. For a moment I was shocked, until I realized he was only adjusting his disguise.

This was not the time nor place to say the things I most wanted to say.

“Don’t die down here, Tuo,” I whispered instead, still holding his hands. “It was a brilliant plan. But it’s over. I’ll be fine. You have to go.”

She left so that I would leave you. When she sees I am not giving in, she will return.

“You can’t be sure of that.”

Of course I can.

“Please, Tuo, go.”

You say this as you grip my hands more tightly.

I let them go and turned away, pacing toward the center of the cell and staring upward. He followed me and did the same. The dim light reflected off of the tears on his cheeks. My cheeks.

“Why are you doing this?” I whispered to him. “Have you not caused enough chaos?”

I would preserve your life a while longer.

“Why? Your kind aren’t capable of love. I’ve never been anything but a tool to you.”

Such disdain for tools! Small wonder that everything you build falls apart.

I struck him a brisk blow to the cheekbone. He neither avoided nor deflected it, but the relaxed, economical way he caught his balance afterward suggested that he had been expecting it. I resisted the urge to press my knuckles to my mouth, letting my hand fall to my side.

“I’m sorry,” I said, not looking at him.

Regret is wasteful.

Above, the door opened. I heard the jailor’s footfalls and then the grinding sound of the heavy grate being moved aside.

The extent of the fire suggested that it had been set on purpose, by a crazed mob running through with torches. Even on the driest of days, a fire could not have spread through the precinct so quickly. The air was thick with smoke, and Tuo swooned the moment he exited the building. I tried to catch him, but he shifted form as he lost consciousness, slipping through my arms and the rough robe the jailor had given him and landing in a glossy black heap at my feet.

The jailor and I locked eyes. The game was over.

“I don’t know who you are,” she said, “or why the High Seeress wants you dead, but a Child of Ru has risked his life for you. I will row you out of here myself.”

Once we were clear of the worst of the smoke, Tuo regained consciousness and sat up, as serene and unruffled as if I had not just been cradling his limp form in my arms. He shifted seemingly effortlessly into the form I had known ten years ago, the gaunt poet with tangled hair, and took the discarded robe I had laid across my lap, reaching up to pull it on over his head. I looked away from the flawlessly human flex and stretch of muscles under his pale skin.

At Tuo’s quiet request, the jailor rowed us through Starlight Gate and to a dock outside the city wall, near the Children’s Causeway. Tuo helped me up the slippery stairs, and the jailor gave the both of us a deep bow before rowing away.

Tuo walked to the end of the dock and paused there, gazing out over the water. I started to follow him, then stopped myself.

“Now that I’ve done what you needed,” I called to him, “I suppose I’m allowed to die?”

He did not look at me. He spoke aloud in his flawless Jiun-Shi accent, but his voice was barely audible. “You are human. You will die whether I allow it or not.”

“And it will make no difference to you.”

He turned and devoured the distance between us, seizing my jaw in his hand and looming over me in a way that would have looked, from a distance, like a show of anger. But his eyes were as tranquil as the lake.

“Stop,” he said, and brushed my lips with his, not quite a kiss. His grip on my jaw was punishingly tight, and I told myself that this was why I did not pull away. “You have so little time,” he said, hovering over my mouth. “Why do you spend it this way? Why do you all spend it this way? You throw yourself, again and again, onto a knife I have never concealed.”

“I’ve tasted passion,” I said, ” and I’ve come to feel I deserve it.”

“The woman at the Temple.” There was no heat in the statement; it was merely a clarification of fact.

“Yes. I’ll confess it was satisfying. There is too much of the Betrayer in me.”

He released me and stepped back, smiling a little. “The god of truth was false to Ru, but Ru is true to him.”

“What? What blasphemy is this?”

He arched a brow at me until I heard the absurdity of my own accusation.

“You imply that Ru is still loyal to the Betrayer,” I said. “But why would a goddess of change be constant?”

“There is nothing constant about loyalty,” said Tuo. “If your shadow stayed constant, you would lose it by living.”

“Who are you lecture on loyalty, when you’ve left a string of broken women behind you?”

“I did not break them. They broke themselves against me. Just as you are doing now.”

I looked into his eyes, trying to reframe his history in light of what he was telling me. Each of his women had left him, either by suicide or abandonment, unable to bear the sight of his blank loveless eyes. It was his lack of mourning that had made him seem disloyal, the way he had moved so swiftly each time to a new lover. Each time except one. A current ran through me at the realization.

“Why was I different?” I asked him. “Why, when I left, did you not find another lover?”

He looked at me for such a long moment that I realized with a shock that I had actually confused him. At last he spoke, with the air of a man giving up on a particularly difficult riddle.

“When did you leave me?” he asked.

I must have looked at him, baffled, for twice as long. But then I understood how very differently the same tale had played out for him and for me. I was at the same time humiliated and chastened, angry and weak-kneed with futile tenderness. I gave a shaky laugh.

“I deserve a lover who doesn’t casually misplace me for a decade,” I said.

“I placed you quite deliberately.”

“It amounts to the same,” I said. “Your loyalty is—moving, but it isn’t enough.”

“Farewell then,” he said, and turned to gaze back out over the water.

I let out an animal cry of frustration and pushed him into the lake. He made no effort to stop me and disappeared beneath its surface with a great splash. I watched the water rock itself back to sleep where he had fallen and waited to see if he would resurface, but he did not.

“Tuo,” I said to the water. “Come back.” But I knew he would not, for he had not done the leaving. “You know I won’t go back to her,” I said. “You know it’s you that I love.”

I couldn’t tell if he heard me. It didn’t matter. It was I who needed to hear it, as a woman needs to hear that her business is bankrupt, her house burned, her child stillborn. A woman or a man needs to hear these things, so that she can begin to assess the damage, shoulder the weight, and move forward.

I slipped off my robe, took a deep breath, and dived at a shallow angle into the lake. I hit bottom almost immediately. The waters there were not deep, but the cold was shocking. A chaos of bubbles burst from my startled mouth. I felt myself lose buoyancy as my lungs emptied, and I settled face first onto the soft lake bottom. For a moment all was dark and icy-still as I fought to keep my nose and mouth sealed against the mud.

Then I felt hands gently turning me over. I resisted the urge to open my eyes. A slippery palm, cold as the water around it, pressed against my mouth, fingers sealing my nostrils shut. I twitched and kicked, panicking as my body began to plead for air.

Do you want to live? It was Tuo’s voice, echoing in my mind as though he had just spoken.

I don’t want to live alone.

Would you rather die with company?

My white-hot need for breath made the question intensely immediate and relevant. It also clarified my answer.

No, I said. No. Let me go.

What will you do?

I tried not to panic; it only made me need air more urgently. I don’t know. I will find a place to start again. I have years left.

So few.

Enough. Let me go.

No. I felt him draw me against his small, cold body, twining his limbs around me, holding me down. I thrashed with terror at first, but even as I did so I understood that he did not mean to kill me, only to make me fight for life, value it. A profound, childlike trust melted through me, and I relaxed in his arms.

There, he said, and though I was fading from consciousness, I could almost swear that I felt him tremble.

Without warning his magic rearranged my skin and my bones and my flesh, shattering me and putting me back together. He was still there in my mind, but without words: watching, questioning, studying.

Only when he released me and I drew in a deep instinctive breath did I realize what he had done. I gasped the muddy lake water with as much relief as I would have drawn the night air. He had lent me his shape – I breathed as a child of Ru.

If you wish to travel, he said, this is the fastest way. He slipped his webbed fingers between mine, and I opened my eyes. The first thing I saw was his own eyes, white as winter suns and nearly blinding. Around him, what had once been suffocating blackness was now a soft gray world, low-ceilinged and infinitely broad, a world I saw as much through my skin as my eyes.

Tuo tugged me southward toward the wall, toward the Starlight Canal, which led through the city to the Weeping River. I could feel the immensity of the world’s water at once, as though every distant shore reached out at once through that liquid web to beckon me.

I watched the movement of Tuo’s strangely jointed legs and tail, and I mimicked him until I found my own rhythm. Then, as I sensed we were of one mind about our destination, I let go his hand. The two of us glided side by side through the water, heading for the sea.


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Mishell Baker is a 2009 graduate of the Clarion Fantasy & Science Fiction Writers’ Workshop, represented by Russell Galen. Her debut novel Borderline, first in the Arcadia Project urban fantasy series, was published by Simon & Schuster’s Saga Press in March 2016. She can be found on Twitter at @mishellbaker and maintains a blog and website at mishellbaker.com.

If you liked this story, you may also like:
“Throwing Stones” by Mishell Baker
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